“My kid’s not motivated.”

We hear this fairly regularly when we first meet a new athlete, and for parents who see this they are almost never wrong.

But what causes this lack of motivation? And can it be changed?

The answer to whether it can be changed lies entirely with the cause, because there are many instances where we’ve seen an athlete’s motivation skyrocket over time. But just as often that motivation never changes.

First, we need to understand this simple quote from motivational speaker Jim Rohn:

“You cannot change people, but they can change themselves.” The first key is not to do anything yourself to movitate, like screaming and yelling, but rather to identify and tap into that particular athlete’s reasons for playing and/or training for a sport.

To do this you need to build trust so that they are comfortable enough to tell you the honest truth about what drives them.

If you can get them to open up, you’ll find that the motivation falls into one of two categories:


  • Trying to please others (parents, coaches)
  • Trying to live up to others expectations (parents, coaches)
  • To win or achieve a high level
  • To acquire a prize or financial reward
  • To avoid punishment or having something taken away


  • A focus on getting better
  • A love or joy of playing the sport itself
  • An enjoyment of competing regardless of outcome

All of us are motivated by a combination of factors, so the answer isn’t going to be as black and white as we’d hope. But almost always there is a single biggest factor driving that athlete.

And we all, kids and adults alike, respond differently to extrinsic and intrinsic motivation.

If I’m driven by extrinsic factors then I’m going to almost always look for the quickest and easiest path to get the reward or reach the destination. For elite athletic success, there is no easy path and at the first level this athlete cannot succeed on talent alone they’ll be exposed.

However, if I’m intrinsically motivated I’ll be much more likely to focus on the journey, the work necessary to get better every day. This is how great athletes develop and is the mindset we want to foster.

To fully understand how this works, let’s think of school. When growing up we almost all were motivated by extrinsic factors – meeting family expectations, getting good grades, getting into college, etc. This leads to behaviors like cramming for tests to do just well enough to pass a test, cheating, procrastinating on work due, and other unsuccessful behaviors.

Those who are truly intrisically driven in academics always do well in the long run, regardless of intelligence levels.

In the world of sports, there is no clearer example of this than Todd Marinovich.

Todd was a child prodigy quarterback who was on the cover of Sports Illustrated in high school. and spent his entire athletic career trying to satisfy his father’s incredibly high demands. In the documentary “The Marinovich Project”, Todd says that after his first NFL start his father came up and told him how proud he was of him. Hearing that and feeling like he had nothing left to work towards, his once promising career totally unraveled and he was out of the league the following year. With no intrinsic motivation and his extrinsic reward reached, Marinovich literally had nothing left to reach for. His career and eventually his life spun out of control.

So basically, we want to help foster kids who are predominantly driven by intrinsic factors.

Doing so doesn’t mean that we as coaches and parents can’t challenge our kids, nor does it mean that aiming to win games and championships is inherently bad in any way.

However, what we ask our kids to focus on can make a huge difference in how motivated they are to do the day-to-day work required to achieve long term success.

Author Jon Gordon, in his book “You Win In The Locker Room First”, describes the value of applying pressure and not stress to a team or individual:

“Focusing on outcomes such as goals, wins points and so on creates stress because you can’t control all the factors involved. Saying ‘We’d better win or we need to win’ will only cause stress, which causes anxiety and weakens performance.

As a coach you never want to apply stress to your team. Instead, you want to apply pressure. Apply pressure when it comes to your team’s work ethic, knowledge, preparation, process and other things they can control like teamwork and fundamentals.”

Great coaches like John Wooden, Bill Belichick and Vince Lombardi took exactly this approach with their teams.

So how do parents and coaches increase motivation with their kids?

First, identify the level of extrinsic motivation being placed on your child or team. If it is fairly high this is likely the cause of their lack of motivation. Start removing as much as you can immediately.

From there, one of two things will happen. Either their motivation will spike because they can re-focus on the activity they instrinsically love to take part in, or they won’t want to do that activity any more.

In the first case, the benefit is obvious. The situation has resolved itself.

But in the second, the benefit is still there but perhaps not as obvious. Because if no intrinsic motivation exists to continue on, this activity is getting in the way of this person finding what truly drives them to be successful in the long run. They may go through a period where they try different things before finding what they love, but in time and with perhaps some pressure (not stress) applied they almost certainly will find their way to a better place.

The bottom line is that we all are only truly motivated to succeed at the things we are passionate about. In the working world there isn’t a paycheck or job title that is ever going to satisfy us completely unless it comes as a byproduct of doing what we love and want to constantly get better at.

So why would we expect our kids to think any differently?

Steer them towards intrinsically motivating factors for doing what they do, and then sit back and watch their motivation levels soar.

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